The Columbus Blue Jackets’ fourth game of the season, against the New York Islanders, was one to watch for many reasons. Heading into this game, the Blue Jackets hadn’t faced any team considered a Stanley Cup contender. They had played the Arizona Coyotes (won 8-2), the Seattle Kraken (won 2-1), and the Detroit Red Wings (lost 4-1). While they had won two of their first three matches and looked pretty solid while doing so, the question heading into their fourth bout was how they would fare against one of the top teams in the league?
Enter the Islanders. They have been contenders since the organization brought in Barry Trotz as head coach in 2019. The team is solid defensively and stocked with enough offensive talent to put them ahead on the scoreboard, which has been enough to win playoff rounds in each of the last three seasons. They would be the first team that the Blue Jackets squared off against that would put them to the test.
How Did Columbus Play?
The game had a tight first period. It was relatively even in shots with no score after one. The first blemish to the scoreboard had to wait until midway through the second stanza when Adam Boqvist showed his youth in making a poor no-look outlet pass in the defensive zone, which was intercepted by Scott Mayfield, who slid the puck under Elvis Merzlikins’ pad.
Columbus scored two quick goals to end the period with the lead. Captain Boone Jenner deflected a shot from Jakub Voracek into the twine on the power play, and 33 seconds later, rookie Cole Sillinger squeaked his first NHL goal past goalie Ilya Sorokin on a gorgeous pass from Vladislav Gavrikov, who had pinched deep into the offensive zone.
Sillinger had a strong game. He also had six shots and was named the game’s first star. Not bad for the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft. His goal made him the second player from the 2021 draft class to score after Mason McTavish (3rd overall, Anaheim Ducks).
Mathew Barzal scored early in the third to tie the game. It was a hard-fought battle that ended in a stalemate. The Blue Jackets had won their only overtime match this season against the Seattle Kraken, while the Islanders had yet to play in the extra frame.
There were no whistles in the third, and the Islanders dominated possession early in overtime. Barzal carried the puck into the Blue Jackets’ zone in what was effectively a three-on-two as Sillinger was defending without a stick after his had broken. When Columbus finally gained possession, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Zach Werenski rushed up ice, and Sillinger swapped for Patrik Laine. Laine came off the bench, received the puck on the offensive blue line, broke low, and sniped it past Sorokin to seal the win.
The scoreboard told the final tale: a 3-2 victory for the Blue Jackets. Columbus left Nationwide Arena with two more points and are now three points ahead of an Islanders squad that was projected to be far superior. While the season is still young, in a one-off match like this one, Columbus has set the precedent that they can win against those teams that were projected to go the distance.
This game featured the youngest player in the NHL – Cole Sillinger (May 16, 2003 – 18 years, 5 months, and one week) and the oldest player – Zdeno Chara (March 18, 1977 – 44 years, 7 months, and 4 days). Chara’s first NHL game (November 19, 1997) was almost six years before Sillinger was born.
Takeaways from the Blue Jackets
Patrik Laine Is a Clutch Performer
Laine, who had a rough season in 2020-21, is bouncing back early. He has points in all four games, with two goals and three assists, and more impressively, both goals were game-winners in overtime – wrist shots from a similar spot in the offensive zone – which happens to be the opposite side of his “office” on the power play. Laine is proving to be the player that he was traded for early on in this season. Dangerous.
Boone Jenner Can Be a Number One Center
While Jenner was a minus-1 against the Islanders, he still performed well. He was the only center above 50-percent in the faceoff dot, posting a remarkable 70 percent win rate.
Jenner also cemented himself as an all-around player, chipping in for 21:45 of ice time with 4:50 on the power play and 3:10 while shorthanded – his ice time led all forwards in all situations. A power-play goal was the icing on the cake. Jenner is making the most of increased responsibility.
Bjorkstrand Still Streaky
Oliver Bjorkstrand’s streaky play is back. The supremely talented Dane leads the Blue Jackets stat categories after four games, with two goals and five assists. While that looks great on paper, he lacks consistency. Bjorkstrand scored all his points in two games – including a four-point outburst in the season opener against the Coyotes and adding three assists versus the Islanders. He is a good player, but what will make him a great one will be hitting the scoresheet on a nightly basis.
Merzlikins the Difference-Maker
We can look back now and note how one or two players may have swayed the outcome of a game, but no one player has stood out as an early difference-maker quite like Merzlikins. The Latvian goaltender is having a sublime start to a season when all eyes are on him. Three games, three wins, five goals against, and a .947 save percentage. Mark Scheig’s prediction of Vezina votes heading Merzlikins’ way is not out of the question.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.